Working Together to Create Volume & Demand

Steve Chivers, Managing Director at modular manufacturer Rollalong and Paul Read, Head of Development and Sales at Magna Housing, discuss how their partnership is encouraging more clients to see the benefits of offsite construction.

The two Dorset-based companies have been working together to develop a cluster of clients in the south of England to create a strong enough pipeline of demand for modular housing to make the offsite approach cost-effective for the manufacturer.

“Our main issue at present is that clients aren’t prepared to commit to the volumes that make MMC work,” says Steve Chivers. “It’s a chicken and egg situation: clients want our higher quality product but at the price of a traditional build home. If factories had the same volumes, clients would soon be getting the quality and the price point they naturally demand. Clusters of clients who are prepared to embrace modular construction as the way forward would bring that into reality.”

Rollalong and Magna Housing have been working together for about 18 months and to date have manufactured 45 houses which are identified for seven different schemes at various stages of planning approval. “Data we hold as a social landlord backs up the narrative of the well-publicised performance gap issue which was highlighted by the Committee on Climate Change and Future Homes Standards,” says Paul Read. “Our data demonstrates that the people who are really taking a leap of faith are those who procure homes on a site-by-site basis at the lowest initial cost: sometimes you get lucky on quality and price and sometimes you don’t.

“We spent a year looking into the business case for MMC as a social landlord and working with Complex Asset Management Solutions (CAMS) to understand in detail the whole life value of the buildings, and after we’d done all that due diligence we decided that this was the best way to proceed. We then went out to procurement, weighting heavily on quality rather than lowest price to find a manufacturer we could partner with. Rollalong in fact won on both quality and price, and 18 months into our relationship we are now on our second design iteration.”

“For clients to switch their approach from building onsite to offsite manufacture turns things completely on their head – it’s a fundamental shift in thinking. A manufacturing environment has fixed costs and employs its workforce directly. The quality control, environmental, health and safety and staff welfare advantages are well known, and as a client we appreciate the use of local labour, reduced waste, time certainty, considerate construction and speed of delivery. It’s the fixed cost that enables these other things to happen and the only way to spread and reduce that cost is to increase productivity through repetition and volume of orders.

“Every client who’s yet to be convinced has a different reason for not embracing MMC. If the reason is quality, and you employ a clerk of works or enhanced employer agent services to solve that, then presumably that’s because your data is telling you that the performance gap is real. If that’s the case, what is the rationale for not looking at both MMC and traditional options to start to explore the business case for change?

“What Magna Housing and Rollalong are doing is trying to get these clients to come together, share data and experience and embrace MMC based on a clear business case, and we are working with Homes England to support this switch. They commissioned a research study into MMC this summer to drive innovation in the construction industry, which is welcome news.”

One principle that is important to Steve Chivers is that the manufacturer is guided by the housing association when it comes to design. “What we haven’t done is design our own suite of homes to take to market,” he explains. “We don’t know what the optimum house layout looks like for a particular client, but Magna Housing have a portfolio of homes that have been tried and tested and consistently reviewed using 10 years of residents’ feedback from social landlords across the South West. So Magna Housing have designed the layouts for their residents and Rollalong have designed the portfolio for manufacture.

“By manufacturing homes offsite and building up stock we can work flexibly with Magna Housing and other clients. Under the old system a developer identifies and secures land, then gets planning consent and then builds. But that system doesn’t work for a manufacturer. We just want to keep building up our stock. In an ideal world, if I’ve got 400 modular homes stored in our yard but no planning approval on site, I can use the houses on another site where there is approval or sell them to another client. “Similarly, Magna Housing can call off 50 new homes from our core stock and order the other homes they need later on. If there’s a delay in getting planning consent the houses can be used on a development somewhere else, so the system remains flexible and the clients get all the benefits of speed of delivery.”

While Rollalong offers speed and flexibility, Magna Housing takes great pride in the design and build quality of their homes. “We know people so we’ve designed houses that we know people will love living in,” says Paul. “Rollalong have brought all their engineering knowhow and knowledge from years of manufacturing and applied it to a housing product. We’ve taken things that we know people like and Rollalong have looked at the area we’re operating in and come up with a solution that meets the requirement.

“With MMC we can design homes that can flex and adapt to people’s lives. Our lives may never return to normal after the pandemic – lifestyles will change and people’s needs may alter. Perhaps more people will work from home in future and will be looking for extra space, and our products can flex and adapt to that. Or a customer might be looking to buy an electric car, or fit solar panels, and these homes of the future can be adapted to that. Magna Housing is a build and stay developer, not a build and leave developer. We’re looking for a lifetime relationship with the owner or renter and we want to give them more flexibility to enable them to stay in their new home for longer. It’s an old idea that I’ve always seen the value of, but it seems that only now is the market beginning to be ready for it.”

Steve Chivers adds: “There are lots of headlines at the moment about poor quality and low standards in traditional construction. Modern methods of construction resolve that issue because the manufacture is of a very high quality and it takes place in a controlled factory environment. There are also benefits to having fewer workers on-site and fewer journeys to and from site – especially in the context of a global pandemic and social distancing in the workplace. As a manufacturer we want to work collaboratively with clients who totally understand the benefits of MMC in terms of safety, quality, speed and flexibility.”

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